Reprinted from Consortium News
In the wake of last week's CNBC-sponsored Republican presidential debate -- and its alleged "gotcha questions" -- the GOP and the Right are reviving their treasured myth of the "liberal media," a claim that has been politically significant but almost entirely fictitious. There is not now nor really was there ever a "liberal media."
Generations back, Americans understood that the major newspapers were owned by very rich men and generally represented their class interests. The wealthy owners would deploy their media properties to advance their mostly conservative -- and pro-business/anti-labor -- viewpoints.
There were always exceptions to this rule, but few Americans in the 1940s, for instance, would have considered the press "liberal," with President Franklin Roosevelt garnering less than a quarter of newspaper endorsements in his last two races and President Harry Truman getting only about 15 percent in 1948.
The modern myth of the "liberal press" originated in the 1950s when many reporters in the national news media displayed sympathy for the idea that African-Americans deserved equal rights with white people.
Though some prominent journalists and many newspapers (especially but not solely in the South) supported racial segregation, many reporters (principally but not only from the North) wrote critically about Jim Crow laws and racist attitudes. A negative media spotlight was cast on the lynching of black men, brutality toward civil rights activists and violence by whites to keep black children out of previously all-white schools.
Northern reporters, for example, descended on Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, for the trial and acquittal of two white men for the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth who supposedly had flirted with a white woman. The critical coverage led the state's whites to plaster their cars with bumper stickers reading, "Mississippi: The Most Lied About State in the Union." [For more on the media's coverage of the civil rights movement, see David Halberstam's The Fifties. Or Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters.]
In the 1960s, the U.S. mainstream media largely favored the Vietnam War, but skeptical reporting about U.S. tactics -- from burning down villages and saturation bombing campaigns to the use of Agent Orange defoliants, assassinations under the CIA's Operation Phoenix and the massacre at My Lai -- angered war supporters who viewed such journalism as undercutting the war effort.
By the late 1960s, the white backlash against racial integration gave rise to Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy and his Silent Majority's resentment of critical coverage of the Vietnam War strengthened Nixon's political hand. Nixon personally had a huge chip on his shoulder about what he regarded as hostile press coverage, so he helped infuse the Republican Party with contempt for the "liberal media."
The 1970s and 1980s
The landmark media events of the 1970s -- the publication of the Pentagon Papers secret history of the Vietnam War, investigation of Nixon's Watergate scandal, and revelations about the CIA's "Family Jewels" secrets -- pretty much sealed this image of a "liberal" press corps that would not reliably defend the actions of the U.S. government.
But this news coverage that so infuriated the Right and many Republicans was not "liberal"; it was accurate. It was a fleeting moment when American journalists were doing what the Founders had in mind with the First Amendment, informing the people about actions by their government so the people could have a meaningful say in controlling what the government was doing.
Nevertheless, the Right's "liberal media" myth proved to be a powerful ideological weapon, wielded against reporters who uncovered unflattering information about right-wing policies and politicians. These reporters were deemed "unpatriotic," "un-American," a "blame-America-firster," or just "liberal" for short.
I witnessed how this phenomenon played out in the 1980s. Contrary to the "liberal media" myth, the senior executives of news organizations that I dealt with were almost universally conservative or neoconservative.
At the Associated Press, its most senior executive, general manager Keith Fuller, gave a 1982 speech in Worcester, Massachusetts, hailing Reagan's election in 1980 as a worthy repudiation of the excesses of the 1960s and a necessary corrective to the nation's lost prestige of the 1970s. Fuller cited Reagan's Inauguration and the simultaneous release of 52 U.S. hostages in Iran on Jan. 20, 1981, as a national turning point in which Reagan had revived the American spirit.
"As we look back on the turbulent Sixties, we shudder with the memory of a time that seemed to tear at the very sinews of this country," Fuller said, adding that Reagan's election represented a nation "crying, 'Enough.'"